As Prince William and Kate Middleton draw up the order of service for their own wedding at Westminster Abbey, they have plenty of family examples rich in tradition to study, and no end of ceremonial music to choose from. The first royal wedding to be held in the Abbey was that of King Henry I and Princess Matilda of Scotland, back in 1100. While no order of service appears to have survived from that particular celebration, 20th century royal weddings have been well-documented and we can see the favorite hymns and processional music choices over the years.
On April 26, 1923, the Duke of York and the Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon – later George VI and the Queen Mother, parents of the current Queen – were married at Westminster Abbey. The hymns were “Lead Us, Heavenly Father, Lead Us” and “Praise My Soul, The King of Heaven.” The couple left the church to Mendelssohn‘s “Wedding March” and C.V. Stanford‘s “Marcia Eroica.”
Now a pattern establishes itself. When the Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, married Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten at the Abbey in 1947, the hymns were “Praise My Soul, the King of Heaven” and “The Lord’s My Shepherd.” The couple also left to the strains of “Wedding March.” The day after the wedding, Princess Elizabeth sent her bouquet back to the Abbey to be laid on the grave of the Unknown Warrior, a tradition started by her mother. We’ll have to wait and see if Kate does the same with her bouquet.
Prince William’s parents, Charles and Diana, were not married at Westminster Abbey, but at St Paul’s Cathedral. Diana walked up the aisle to Jeremiah Clarke‘s “Trumpet Voluntary” and she personally chose the hymn “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” which was also sung at her funeral. She and Charles left the church to Sir Edward Elgar‘s “Pomp and Circumstance.”
British composers are often showcased at royal weddings. Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson left the Abbey in 1986 to Elgar’s “Triumphal March from Caractacus” and William Walton‘s “Crown Imperial.” Henry Purcell‘s “Trumpet Tune and Airs” was chosen by Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones when they processed out of the Abbey following their 1960 wedding.
The hymn “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” featured in the orders of service of both Princess Margaret and her niece Princess Anne. “Lead Us, Heavenly Father, Lead Us” was chosen by both King George VI and Prince Andrew. So a wealth of stirring music with historical resonance awaits William and Kate.
All we can do now is wait to discover which choices the couple makes — and see whether they decide to invoke the memory of any previous royal weddings with their selections.
Laura Trevelyan is a BBC correspondent based in New York.